Local Jonny’s Tavern & Café

Jonny Oughterson and Lauren VanWinkle co-own Local Jonny’s Tavern & Café.

While Local Jonny’s Tavern & Café may appear busy and bustling with patrons, the restaurant is doing everything in its ability to keep the doors open. 

The Cave Creek restaurant is located in the town core and opened six years ago, previously operating as a quick-service food establishment. 

Considering the long lines of people Local Jonny’s typically attracted as a quick-service restaurant, co-owner Lauren VanWinkle said she realized there was no way it could safely reopen in this manner during a pandemic. 

“We just didn’t feel comfortable operating in the same way that we were operating before,” she said. 

To mitigate crowds, Local Jonny’s expanded its square footage to transition into a full-service traditional restaurant, acquiring the space next door and assuming the lease on the building. The restaurant also doubled its number of staff to accommodate the extra square footage.

“It was something that we hadn’t done before,” she said about the restaurant’s transition. “It was a whole new way of doing business in the middle of a pandemic.”

While the staff and community “rallied around us” and went the “extra mile” to keep the restaurant going, “Our labor costs have almost doubled from what it was,” VanWinkle said. She added that the restaurant incurred significant costs from purchasing COVID-19 mitigation supplies.

Local Jonny’s has used its social media to ask the community for its continued support. 

VanWinkle runs the Local Jonny’s social media accounts and wants to communicate that even if the restaurant looks lively and full of people, its owners are working tirelessly to keep things going, she said. She mentioned how the restaurant had to take out an Economic Injury Disaster Loan.

However, it’s hard to ask for support when other restaurants have had to shut their doors, VanWinkle said.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but we’re still here,” she said. “I think we made it through some of the hardest parts, which is amazing in itself. I could not be more proud of our team.”

VanWinkle said she is trying to stay positive so her staff doesn’t carry the weight the owners are feeling. She and her husband, Jonny Oughterson, own the restaurant together and do everything they can to make sure that everyone is paid on time and that their checks clear, she said.

“Not only is it our livelihood, but now we have about 35 employees who depend on us to pay their rent,” she explained.

VanWinkle and Oughterson have worked in the restaurant industry for a long time and noticed a culture where its employees are not taken care of, she said, adding that they often get taken advantage of. 

When they opened Local Jonny’s, they were excited to have the chance to create an atmosphere where everyone is cared for and looked after, she said. However,once they got in the thick of it, they realized “it’s not as simple as we thought.”

However, Local Jonny’s has built a “family culture,” VanWinkle said, adding that her favorite part of co-owning the restaurant is the ability to “influence people in their lives.”

She explained how many of the Local Jonny’s employees are just out of high school and college and don’t have the best support system, adding how rewarding it is that “I get to really be there for them.”

“It’s really special to get to be a part of somebody’s life in a capacity like that.”

All things considered, VanWinkle said she believes everything the restaurant had to do to stay in business during COVID-19 will be a “blessing” in the long run.

Not only is it a big feat to expand the restaurant’s square footage, but it also proves “how strong we are,” she said. She added that it has never been a consideration to close Local Jonny’s doors for good. 

VanWinkle said she is the “most optimistic” she’s been in around six months, adding, “The systems that we’ve put in place are only going to benefit us in the long run.”

“If we’ve pushed through this long with it being this difficult, then we just need to hold on a little bit longer.”

—Staff writer Sarah Donahue can be reached at sdonahue@timespublications.com